Two things we can conclusively say about the millions of people going to the gym. First, they all want to make some improvements and get stronger. Secondly, despite there being enormous amounts of data on what works and what doesn’t, most people (and trainers) are not applying a scientifically supported approach to their program design. The majority of people are simply doing what other people are telling them to do or following workouts that they find in a magazine or online. Worse yet to many of the “experts” writing these articles and providing these workouts aren’t spending any time actually reading about what has been proven to work best and are simply going on instinct, what they have been shown by others in the past and following whatever trends are currently popular in the training world.
Now don’t start thinking I hate all trainers and think every popular article ever written is worthless. There are many great trainers who are well educated and really do care about learning the details behind what we do. And there are plenty of up and coming trainers who are open to learning more and developing their skills. It’s just that far too many individuals don’t spend enough time on the why’s behind what we do and when they do take the time to check out something new, they choose material to learn from that is already flawed and not based on science. Add to that the tremendous numbers of people who think a job in the fitness industry is cool and fun and think that just because they followed some plan that gave them a bigger bench press they are suddenly qualified to teach others and are experts on the topic. I love Instagram and think there are a lot of great things about it but some twenty year old college sophomore with youth, good genetics, time and the motivation/energy to hit the gym regularly who happens to take fabulous pictures because they look great is not yet qualified to coach and develop programs for the diverse spectrum of actual individuals that are looking for exercise guidance.
Now that I’ve spent two paragraphs griping, let’s do something to contribute to solving the problem and making you more aware of what the research is saying. One of the challenges we face in evaluating and applying current research is the difference between populations. Populations can be defined in many ways but for today’s research we are looking at general recreational gym goers.
Most exercise research is done with fairly homogenous subjects, experienced athletes, younger fit subjects closer to college age or older individuals. Rarely does the research population look like the average cross section of the typical gym. The average man or women who goes to the gym a few times a week, can lift with a fair amount of effort, has a basic level of fitness but isn’t following a super structured program designed to maximize specific training objectives. This isn’t a high level athlete, power-lifter, crossfitter or Olympic lifter but someone who represents that majority of whom you see in the gym or who hires a personal trainer.
If we embrace our original premise that most of these subjects would like to get stronger we have to ask the question, what type of program design will do the best job of increasing strength? It has been well demonstrated that long term periodized resistance training programs are successful. The problem is most people do not have the long term perspective and discipline to follow a detailed year long, carefully designed program. Most people want and need to see some changes in a shorter time period. They also need a little flexibility to deal with the realities of actual life. In addition they don’t have the benefit of having someone knowledgeable to design a long term program.
Traditionally the two variables we are manipulating the most in a program design are 1) intensity which usually refers to load or the amount of weight lifted and 2) volume which refers to either the number of repetitions lifted or the total poundage lifted (total work), and often a combination of the two. While the research has shown the long term benefits of periodization there is still debate as to which program design variations work best in the short term (6-12 weeks). There are conflicting research findings and even then most of the research is done in the more homogeneous populations we already mentioned. So what happens when we look at different ways of manipulating the training variables of intensity and volume in our average recreational training population? Or in basic English, what combination of weights and repetitions will get the average person the strongest the fastest?
Two hundred subjects were broken down into four groups of 50. Each group worked out 3 times per week for 6 weeks. Each workout consisted of 8 exercises, each performed for 3 sets with 6o seconds of rest between sets. What varied between the four groups were the resistance they used and the number of repetitions.
Group 1 used a constant load model. They did 10 repetitions with 80% of their 1 rep maximum (RM) for all 18 workouts over the 6 six weeks.
Group 2 used an increasing load model. The first two weeks they did 15 reps with 70% of their 1RM. In weeks 3 and 4 they did 10 reps with 80% of their 1RM. For the last two weeks they did 5 reps with 90% of their 1RM. In essence they regularly increased the weight and lowered their repetition count every two weeks.
Group 3 used a decreasing load model. They began with 5 reps with 90% of 1RM. In week three they switched to 10 reps with 80% of 1RM and for weeks 5 and 6 did 15 reps with 70% of 1RM. Essentially the exact opposite of the increasing load model.
Group 4 had a daily changing load model where the weight and number of repetition changed every set. In week one they did 15 reps with 70% 1RM for the first set, 10 reps with 80% of 1RM for the second set and 5 reps with 90% of 1RM for the third set. They followed this pattern in weeks 3 and 5 as well. For weeks 2, 4 and 6 they reversed the daily pattern and did 5 reps with 90% of 1RM for their first set, 10 reps with 80% of their 1RM for their second set and 15 reps with 70% of their 1RM for the third set.
Before the training program initiated and at the conclusion the subjects were tested on their 1 repetition maximum as well as their 10 repetition maximum. All four groups saw increases in their strength over the 6 week period for both their 1RM and their 10RM. What was most interesting is that there was no notable difference in improvements between the first three groups; constant load, increasing load and decreasing load. There was a significant difference between group four, the daily changing load and the other three approaches. In both the 1RM and 10RM the daily changing load group saw significantly larger increases in strength then the other groups.
Putting It All Together
While all four training approaches successfully increased strength, it was clear that a daily changing load approach resulted in the greatest strength gains over the short term for our advanced recreational training population. Remember that populations matter so while this group clearly shows a benefit from using the daily changing approach we cannot say that the same method is optimal for advanced lifters and strength athletes. Yes we all like to think we are above average and advanced lifters, the reality is most people, including most personal training clients, are not so giving this approach a try makes a lot of sense.
There is also a question of time. This study was done over 6 weeks. We cannot say what would happen if we looked at the results of a similar study done over an entire year where the 1RM and in turn the adjusted percentage of 1RM was modified for all groups as the study went on. After seeing the significantly larger changes in the daily adjusted group it would make sense that the same group would benefit over the longer run but it may not. The hypertrophy (muscle growth) impacts that can happen with longer training periods could alter the final result, though it could also increase the benefit of daily adjustments as well.
We cannot say for sure why the daily adjusted group saw such significant improvements over the other three approaches. The authors theorize that the constant changes in intensity and volume could prevent any sort of habituation from occurring. The regular changes could be placing a greater stress on the neuromuscular system generating the larger gains.
It is also possible that the difference is based on the concept of having motor units with different thresholds to firing. The constant changes might not allow the neuromuscular system to become adjusted to a particular set of demands. More fatigue may be produced in a larger number and variety of motor units forcing the neuromuscular system to recruit additional high-threshold units. The daily changing load subjects may become more efficient at recruiting the high-threshold units which assists them in producing more force and experiencing greater gains.
So there you have it. If you want to see greater gains over your next short term block of training time consider adopting a training plan that varies the weight and repetition range throughout the different sets of each exercise.
Eifler, C. (2016) Short-Term Effects of Different Loading Schemes in Fitness-Related Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 30(7):1880-1889